February 20, 2018
"Who do you reckon it is?"On this day in 1884, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was published in England. The prank which caused this most American of novels to be first published in England is one that Twain would have relished, had he not been its victim. Twain owned his own publishing company, and his plan was to get the book out in the U.S. in the Fall of 1884, in time for Christmas. There was a delay when he rejected some of the illustrations, finding them "powerful good" but too realistic for popular taste; still, there was time to redo them. Then, out of mischief, or revenge for the rejected drawings -- the culprit was never discovered, despite a $500 reward -- an engraver added a penis to one of the plates. By the time someone discovered the picture of an exposed Uncle Silas saying "Who do you reckon it is?" to a small boy while a beaming Aunt Sally looks on, thousands of advance copies of the novel had been printed. They are prized collector's items today, but their recall in 1884 meant that the American edition did not come out until February 18, l885 -- months after the Christmas trade, and the British edition. The book sold poorly and went almost unnoticed until the Library Committee of Concord, Mass., supported by a letter from Louisa May Alcott tsk-tsking not at the illustrations but the language, banned it.
That Twain was duped by a penis-joke was in the spirit of his book, or that part of it belonging to the enlargements of the King and Duke. Their playbill promised "Hamlet's Immortal Soliloquy!! By The Illustrious Kean! Done by him 300 consecutive nights in Paris! For One Night Only, On account of imperative European engagements!" and delivered every bit of it:
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